Sifu’s got a good pitch. You are a martial arts master, bent on revenge, fighting odds that are impossible to overcome in a lifetime. But you have a secret weapon: Each time you die, you rise again. You race to finish your quest as your avatar grows frail and gray.
It’s a novel concept, so it’s a shame that developer Sloclap wasn’t able to make it work. Sifu is a game full of confusing, inescapable, infuriating shortcomings, and almost all of them are tied to its supernatural twist.
Before we get into that, let’s talk about the good stuff: The “badass martial arts master” portion of the pitch is executed with incredible skill. Sifu has the bones of a wonderful action game, giving you all the tools to play out your Hong Kong action fantasies. Light and heavy attacks string into beautifully animated combos that hit with satisfying thwacks and comic book motion lines. You can finish stunned enemies with brutal, speedy environmental executions that will elicit gasps over and over again. From the jump, you’re a force to be reckoned with.
But your enemies put up a fight. They can drop you in a couple of hits, and they use their numbers to surround and overpower you. Sifu’s goons are hardly as polite as the kind we’ve come to expect in a post-Batman: Arkham third-person combat world. They don’t wait their turn, and they don’t broadcast their intent with blinking warning icons. So you’re always on the move, sliding across tables and hopping over furniture — constantly scrambling to deny them the full benefit of their superior numbers.
When assailants do catch up to you, you’ve still got tools — maybe too many. Sifu’s defensive resource is called “structure,” and it works a lot like “posture” in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. You can block to absorb attacks, but your structure meter swells. When it fills, it shatters, leaving you vulnerable for a few precious seconds. But if you perfectly time your block, the enemy will take structure damage instead. Sifu adds another layer of technical complexity with its “avoids,” which are executed by holding the block button and flicking the left stick up or down, depending on whether you’re evading a high attack or low attack. With the right timing, you’ll escape damage and recover a bit of structure.
Learning the utility of each of these defensive tools takes a lot of effort, but it comes with its rewards. There’s nothing like perfectly timing a duck under an incoming baseball bat and watching your opponent slug the poor goon behind you.
Sifu is at its very best when it drops you into overwhelming scenarios and asks you to use these offensive and defensive tools to overcome the odds. You’ll shove a foe into a crowd of his allies and then flow through them, parrying, disarming, striking, dodging, sweeping, and having a lovely time. I wish I could say that this is the extent of Sifu’s reach, and that it’s happy to revel in all of this kinetic, violent joy.
All the other stuff. When I saw the debut trailer that revealed the nifty “get older every time you die” mechanic, I thought, Oh, neat. I wonder how they’ll massage that concept into an elegant game system. I’m sad to report that the answer to that question is: “They didn’t.” It’s confusing and unwieldy. Its internal logic is hard to follow, and it taints just about everything it touches.
So let’s get into it.
You start Sifu as a 20-year-old Pak Mei master. You have to raid the hideouts of five big jerks and kill them in a predetermined order. Every time you die, you rise again with a refilled life bar and a few more gray hairs. The amount of aging you’ll do is a Fibonacci sequence determined by your current death count. After your first death, you’ll be 21; after your second, you’ll be 23; after your third, you’ll be 26; and so forth.
I hope you’re not already confused, because we’re just getting started.
Each passing decade is a milestone. You’ll gain a bit of attack power, but your maximum health will shrink. This is cool. The balance of risk and reward in combat evolves as you age into a glass cannon. Each death will also give you access to a little shop where you can spend experience points on extremely useful combos and skills, like catching thrown projectiles, executing a damaging parry follow-up, or a sliding kick that knocks opponents over. Cool! Simple enough.
But! Each of those skills has a specific age cutoff. Can’t teach an old dog new tricks, I suppose. You also have the option to repurchase a skill you already have. You don’t unlock a better version of it, but if you buy it five times, it will be unlocked on all subsequent runs. Hrm.
This system is a lot to take in, and even the interface struggles to make sense of it. The upgrade screen is a deluge of black, gray, and pink dots; XP costs; tool tips; and terms and conditions. The process of dumping experience into already-unlocked skills isn’t rewarding. It feels like paying my student loans.
You can also increase your core stats with shrines, which are interspersed throughout each level. While the other upgrades are mostly active skills and attacks, shrines grant you passive benefits: things like increased weapon durability, health recovery on takedowns, or even a chance to reset your death counter. Each shrine lets you invest a point in one of nine of these perks, each of which has three levels. What currency do you use to unlock these perks? Well, it depends on the perk. Some are unlocked with experience, some by simply being under a certain age, and others with the third abstract currency of “level score.”
Right now, you might be saying, “Why are you telling me all this? Lots of games have obtuse, hard-to-grok progression systems. I’ve played Dark Souls.” And you’re right. Complex, prickly progression systems can be really fun when they are elegantly grafted onto gameplay.
But that’s not the case here. Not at all.
I haven’t even dug into how bosses work, or how you have to restart a run once you die after the age of 70. I spent a lot of energy parsing Sifu’s opaque network of rules and systems, and I want to spare you, dear reader, from the same form of exhaustion. Just trust me when I say that no matter the effort you bring to understanding Sifu, it will not meet you halfway.
Like Hades and Returnal, Sifu is a run-based game where each attempt is an opportunity to get further than your last. But unlike those games, its execution is needlessly complex, and it’s really, really hard to tell if you’re making any permanent progress.
In Hades, the weapons and perks you pick on any given run are constantly reinforced on screen with icons and weapon effects. In Sifu, there are no external reminders of the skills you have equipped. I can’t count how many times I mashed the input for a technique, only to realize I hadn’t unlocked it on that particular run. Unless you go through the laborious and annoying process of permanently unlocking a skill, you never get a chance to develop muscle memory. In short: Sifu’s visual language isn’t doing its convoluted systems any favors.
Likewise, the perks you’ve gained from shrines are reset and overwritten with each new attempt, making it just about impossible to easily plan your build, or even hold onto any reliable understanding of your own abilities.
Sifu is a very difficult roguelite, and you will, naturally, have to replay levels ad nauseam. However, it’s worth mentioning that the level layouts and enemy placements are identical on each run. I’ve enjoyed games where this is the case. Part of the Dark Souls experience is learning efficient routes back to boss battles, weaving around enemies and fighting only when necessary. In Sifu, this is impossible. Fights are hard-scripted. Doors stay locked until every lowly goon is defeated. The run back to a boss might take 10-15 minutes if everything goes well for you. The benefit of these surprise-free runs is that they increase your sense of mastery. But when you’ve seen the same scripted events and heard the same unskippable dialogue for the dozenth time, it feels horribly rote, and all that’s left is drudgery.
It’s such a shame, because there are some beautiful sequences in this game. You stroll through psychedelic tableaus full of gorgeous colors and haunting sounds. It’s amazing — the first time. But with each repetition, I got more and more frustrated and incredulous. These level designers did a wonderful job, but did nobody tell them what kind of game this was? Did nobody point out that the player would have to wade through this lovely interactive art installation over and over and over again, just for the privilege of being beaten to death by the enemy on the other side?
Sifu is incredibly frustrating because beneath all of its messy, clunky contrivances, there is a fantastic action game that I really, really want to play. But Sifu can’t get out of its own way, and its high-concept ambitions spoil its fundamental pleasures.
Sifu will be released Feb. 8 on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC; early access for pre-order customers goes live Feb. 6. The game was reviewed using a PS5 download code provided by Sloclap. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.